A Biblical Theology of Holy War, Pt 5: The Covenant with Moses

Today I happened upon a recent article by Peter Williams (the warden of the Tyndale House, where I happen to spend most of my time) on the conquest of Canaan and the common question of “did God command genocide?”

Premier Christianity, March 2015 (see online version here, behind a paywall)


It reminded me of two things: (1) the statement made in the article that “There’s every ground to trust God had a good reason for whatever he ordered” is valid, but what exactly is that reason? … and (2) It’s been nearly 2 months since I’ve posted on this topic, so it is high time I move the ball forward.

As mentioned at the outset of this series, I’m taking a different approach to the question of the holy war or conquest of Canaan. Most folks, including Dr. Williams, argue the issue from an apologetics perspective. That’s all well and necessary, but my focus has been to attempt to articulate a biblical theology of the holy war: that is, what purpose does it play within the Bible, and what light can that shed on the issue?

Recap and introduction

For a recap, the outline of the series is as follows:

  1. The Problems: What are the most common complaints or issues raised about the OT holy war, and how have they often been dealt with?
  2. Covenant Setting: How the institution of the Mosaic Covenant defines Holy War.
  3. Holy War and the Crushing Seed (Adamic Covenant): How the holy war began
  4. Holy War and the Promise (Abrahamic Covenant): God fights for his people
  5. Holy War and the Nation (Mosaic Covenant) — this post
  6. Holy War and the Covenant-Maker
  7. Holy War and Christ
  8. Conclusions

The aim of this post is to analyze the holy war from the angle of the covenant God made with Moses. Recall from post #2 that the first time God commanded Israel to wage war with the Canaanites, he did so in the context of the covenant he gave Moses at Mount Sinai. That is, the declaration of holy war (cherem) was part of the Book of the Covenant and comes shortly after the giving of the Ten Commandments. We’ve seen in the prior two posts that the notion of the holy war goes back before Moses, namely, to Adam and Abraham, but it is intensified in a historical sense with the time of the Mosaic Covenant.

So let’s see how this plays out in the time of Moses.

The assumption that drives how the holy war plays out with Moses and, ultimately, Joshua, is that Israel has been consecrated by God to be a nation of his own, a special people chosen from among all others within which God would work out his saving purposes. This choosing or election of Israel itself begins, in fact, with an act of holy war: the battle with Egypt, the exodus, and the crossing of the Red Sea. That is to say, the nation itself is created through God’s fighting the battle with Egypt to deliver them. It is another instance of “seed conflict” between the people of God (seed of the woman) and God’s enemies (seed of Satan). We must not forget this, for it shapes how the rest of the holy war with Canaan will play out. God has already fought for his people and won a great deliverance—a deliverance that is, in fact, THE chief redemptive event of the entire Old Testament. But that theme is for another day.

This setting-apart of Israel as God’s special people prepares the way for the next stage of the ongoing “seed conflict”: namely, the creation of a space in which God’s purposes for Israel could play out. They needed land; they needed security; they needed a place where they could live under God’s law and worship him. Hence, the holy war that God commanded in Exodus 23 / Deuteronomy 7 was directed at two ends: national purposes and religious purposes. Let’s look at each briefly in turn.

(a) National Purposes

After decades during which God’s people were sojourners in Egypt and the wilderness (cf. Num 33:1–49), the legislation for the holy war aimed at achieving three objectives for the new nation:

  • National boundaries. First, in Exod 23:31, God delineates the national boundaries to Moses, saying, “I will set your border from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates.”[1] Note the emphasis on God’s action, as we’ve seen previously: I will set. Not you. God demonstrates that he is sovereign over the details of the outcome and that he is setting up a physical-temporal nation with clear boundaries — taken from seven evil nations — through which he would perpetuate the righteous seed.[2]
  • Provision. Secondly, God promises Israel that it will receive material blessings as a result of its consecration to him: “You shall serve the LORD your God, and he will bless your bread and your water, and I will take sickness away from among you. None shall miscarry or be barren in your land; I will fulfill the number of your days” (Exod 23:25–26). God would bring agricultural, reproductive, and physical blessing on his newly constituted nation once they are in the land. Note the two key dimensions of the Mosaic Covenant shining through here: God’s grace (I will do this) combined with the expectation of obedience (You shall serve). For more on this, see my Moses series.
  • Security. Finally, God demonstrates that he designed the conquest in such a way to preserve the new nation. He would eliminate the enemies in a progressive fashion to enable Israel to subdue the land in an orderly way. He declares, “I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply against you. Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land” (Exod 23:29–30; cf. Deut 7:22–23). He also strongly commanded Israel to abstain from forming any national treaties with the immediately surrounding nations (Exod 23:32) to preserve their political independence. Moreover, while on the one hand God will “give their kings into your hand” (Deut 7:24), he made provision for Israel to appoint a king to rule over the nation as God’s vice-regent, ensuring unity and stability among the tribes (Deut 17:14ff).[3] Importantly, this king must be of the seed of the woman, not of the serpent (“One from among your brothers … not … a foreigner,” Deut 17:15).

In sum, the politico-national angle of Yahweh War demonstrates God’s concern for providing a stable, well-defined, economically viable nation in which his redemptive purposes through Moses could take root. The conquest was a key step in the transformation of Israel, as a military and political nation, from a seedling to a mature entity that would fight against evil.

The national and military element is not the only emphasis, however. Worship is the primary goal. To that we turn.

(b) Religious Purposes

More prominent throughout the holy war legislation than the political angle is the pervasive religious emphasis: holy war is primarily about protecting the righteous seed from the wickedness and idolatry of the evil seed. In the Mosaic Covenant, God’s interest again and again centers around purity in worship: that Israel would worship only the true God, and do so rightly.

However, the history of the conflict between the “seeds,” since the time of Cain and Abel (recall the issue over their sacrifices in Gen 4:1-7), has been characterized by a clash of worship, as there has loomed the threat that the seed of the serpent would pollute, defile, or even destroy the religious worship of the righteous and, thus, jeopardize its very continuation. Thus, the conquest ensures that God’s holy people remain undefiled. Let us look at a few ways this shows up in the text.

  • Monotheism. Having given the Ten Commandments that identify the true God and the imperative to worship him alone (Exod 20), and having further detailed the parameters for such things as sacrifices and Sabbath-keeping (Exod 23:10–19), God then commands Moses, in the context of the holy war declaration, that “you shall not bow down to their gods nor serve them, nor do as they do” (Exod 23:24).
  • Pure worship. He continues by stating that Israel must not make covenants with “their gods” and concludes, “They shall not dwell in your land, lest they make you sin against me; for if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you” (Exod 23:32-33).  God declares that the worship of the Canaanites is wicked, that the worship of the Israelites is to be pure and true, that the presence of the pagan practices could thwart Israel’s calling, and, thus, that Israel must be aggressive to eradicate the pagans or risk religious devastation.
  • Protection from themselves. Ironically, the Israelites were not commanded to destroy Canaan because they were somehow morally superior, but quite the opposite. Because of Israel’s weakness and rebelliousness (Deut 9:6–7), God acts aggressively to protect his covenant people from pagan inroads that could destroy the seed of the woman. So God moves to remove anything that would cause his people to stumble. God commands Israel to destroy idols, altars, and shrines in order to protect them from the temptation to religious syncretism, and he forbids them to intermarry with Canaanites, “for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods” (Deut 7:3–4).
  • Establish a national-religious pattern.  Finally, we see how the holy war was commanded by God in such a way that the religious worship of the people would be their identifying mark as a nation. (a) Before the inaugural battle of Jericho, all the soldiers are circumcised (Josh 5:2–12)—thus applying the covenant sign to the newly set-apart nation. (b) The ark of the covenant takes a central role in the battles (Josh 3:14-17; 6:7-11; 7:6; 8:33). This is doubly important, since the holy war declaration was stored in the ark, and since God’s presence himself is symbolized via the ark. (c) The Levites take on a very important role in the conquest: leading the people across the Jordan (Josh 4:10), carrying the ark into battle (Josh 6:6), blowing the trumpets that were instrumental in the battle of Jericho (Josh 6:13), receiving the spoils and bringing them before the Lord (Num 31:54), and orchestrating the destruction of the material cherem spoils (Deut 7:25–26).

This is key: God’s declaration of holy war is not, strictly speaking, to remove pagan nations that practice idolatry, but rather to exterminate idolatry itself. To, in other words, “purge the evil from Israel” (Deut 17:12) from within and from without.

Many specific details of the conquest narrative reveal the underlying religious nature of holy war and, in particular, its connection with key elements of Mosaic law and Israel’s sacrificial system: circumcision, Passover, ark, offerings, worship, and the priesthood.

God is, in effect, drawing his people into a war against the false gods that challenge his rule in order that he might consecrate a nation through which he may be worshiped rightly on earth.

We may not like this logic, but it is there, and it is not up to us to try to excuse it or change it to fit modern secular sensibilities. Evil is real, and God endeavors to crush it to protect his people, the righteous seed.

Connecting to the pew

I’ll mention one short implication and then suggest one that would take longer to unpack, so I may return to it another day.

(1) We need protection from ourselves. I was puzzled for a long time in college about one of my hallmates, who did not have a computer. I sincerely believe he was the only person on our 25,000+ campus who did not have one, especially given that the university had started mandating that all incoming freshmen buy one. Apparently he had asked his roommate literally to destroy the computer. I eventually learned why. He had been struggling with a serious addiction to online pornography (which was still pretty new back then), and being a sincere Christian and a leader on campus, he was finally convicted to take serious action to protect himself from himself. He knew he couldn’t be trusted with filtering programs (he could bypass them) or accountability partners (he could lie to them). He needed to eradicate that which was making it possible for him to sin again and again. It did not take the temptation away, but it went a long way towards making his dorm room a safe place for him to grow in his walk with the Lord, rather than to sin nightly.

I am not, of course, saying that the cherem against Canaan is on the same level as this; it is merely an analogy. But the principle is the same: sometimes God requires that serious action be taken to protect us from that which snares us. Jesus spoke of this with his “cut off the hand” statement. The cherem, as I have argued above, played this kind of role for Israel. God was pouring out judgment on Canaanites because they deserved it for their sin, idolatry, etc.—but he also did it to protect Israel from itself. In the end, it did not work completely, since they failed to eradicate all the Canaanites and ultimately stumbled into egregious sin of false worship, etc., but the principle was there.

(2) What about ISIS? The implications of the national-political and religious dimensions of the biblical holy war are substantial, especially in light of recent attempts by Muslim militants who claim precisely to be doing the very same thing: to establish a political caliphate in which Shariah and the worship of Allah according to the Qur’an and Hadiths can be established forcefully upon everyone.

What’s the difference? We will turn to this in part with the next post, when we bring Christ more directly into the picture. However, at this point it is important at least to comment that the major differences between the biblical holy war and the Islamic jihad that has been ongoing since roughly 600 AD is this: progressive revelation and progressive redemption.

The Bible has built within it its own doctrine that revelation is progressive: we learn more about God’s plan as he reveals more of it to us later in the Old Testament and, of course, in the New Testament. This does not undercut the passages we’re dealing with, but it does mean we understand them as being confined to a point in time and a specific historical circumstance. Nothing in the Bible ever claims that the holy war on Canaan was meant to be an ongoing thing. Far from it. The Qur’an, on the other hand, explicitly commands ongoing jihad; the only question is whether modern Muslims submit to that injunction or not. There is nothing in the Qur’an remotely like the Bible’s internal doctrine of progressive revelation.

Moreover, the Bible teaches progressive redemption. The events of the nation-state of Israel were preparatory for an even greater collection of events that would happen at the cross—which, in turn, point to an ever greater set of events that will take place when Christ returns. Thus, the activities that belong in one redemptive era—such as the holy war—accomplished their ends but are no longer normative for the biblical faith. We are in a new era of the Spirit this side of the cross that has changed everything. But we still have much to learn from the “seed conflict” as it was expressed in time in Canaan, and we’ll turn to that next time.


[1] God later reiterates and clarifies the land legislation, telling Moses to “Distribute the land by lot, according to your clans” (Num 33:54) according to the specific borders he outlines for the southern, western, northern, and eastern boundaries: “This will be your land, with its boundaries on every side” (Num 34:13).

[2] It is important to note that Israel as a nation, though considered the righteous seed, contained individuals who were the seed of the serpent (just like Cain, Ham, Ishmael, etc.), just as the Canaanites contained some righteous individuals (Rahab). Nevertheless, considered collectively, the two groups represent the “seeds.”

[3] In Deut 17:14–15, the connection between kingship and conquest is notable: “When you come to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose.


3 thoughts on “A Biblical Theology of Holy War, Pt 5: The Covenant with Moses”

  1. Thank you Greg. Very insightful and helpful in gaining a proper perspective especially in light of progressive Christianity’s questioning of the truth of Scripture and God as He has revealed Himself through the Scriptures.

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